Chávez Faces Toughest Election in Fourteen Years

For the first time in his presidency, the Venezuelan leader faces a unified opposition.

For the first time in nearly fourteen years, Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chávez faces the possibility of losing an election on Sunday. A change of power in Caracas may be what the country needs to put it on a more stable economic footing.

Previous attempts to depose Chávez failed when the opposition collapsed. For the first time since he assumed power in 1999, Chávez is confronted by a unified opposition movement on top of mounting economic difficulties.

The opposition’s presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, the former governor of the northern state of Miranda, leads a centrist coalition of some two dozen national and regional parties. His own Movimiento Primero Justicia is considered right of center, but Capriles’ platform is modeled on the economic and social reforms of Brazilian president Lula da Silva, a socialist who combined an opening of Brazil’s economy to international trade and investment with generous education and welfare spending.

Capriles’ style is similarly pragmatic. When the president promises to “save mankind” and establish a “new international order” in his long speeches, his opponent wonders cunningly, “But who takes care of the electricity cuts?”

Although it is rich in natural resources, Venezuela has suffered constant energy and food shortages in recent years. It is the world’s tenth largest oil exporter but a net importer of refined products owing to an underdeveloped hydrocarbon industry. Venezuela’s economic growth rate is the lowest in Latin America while inflation has averaged 23 percent since 2001. Transparency International ranks the country among the ten most corrupt in the world.

Chávez’ policies have eroded Venezuelan competitiveness. He stripped private companies of their assets and property rights and imposed price and foreign exchange controls in an attempt to stem the crisis. But central planning has failed to deliver the economic expansion that is needed to sustaining the state’s lavish spending on education, health-care and food subsidies.

It is in large part due to these very social programs, carried out under the banner of the “Bolivarian Revolution,” that the president still enjoys broad support among the country’s poor who are wary of Capriles’ call for reform. Chávez plays into their suspicions by characterizing his opponent as a “candidate of the rich” and an “agent of imperialism.” In full control of Venezuela’s state media, Chávez can even warn of “civil war” if Capriles is elected, sparking fears that he might not step down if he loses the election.

The opposition’s candidate is generally more popular among the country’s middle class but trails the president in national surveys by up to fifteen points. Capriles’ campaign insists that the poll numbers are distorted by respondents’ reluctance to show support for their candidate. Independent and foreign pollsters suggest a tight race.

In any event, Capriles represents the most serious challenge to Chávez’ administration that the president has had to cope with and probably Venezuelan voters’ best chance of improving their own as well as their nation’s economic prospects. If he wins, it will remove one of the country’s largest obstacles to freer trade and enterprise and allow foreigners to invest in it again.